Saturday, May 28, 2016

Sometimes culling wolves is a necessary evil

There was a fascinating article in today's Globe and Mail about the culling of wolves in Western Canada.
Until recently, the practice has been kept reasonably quiet, and largely limited to techniques such as setting liberal hunting limits, local authority actions, and bounties paid to local trappers. In recent years, though, the British Columbia and Alberta governments have had to resort to larger scale more controversial culls, sometimes involving the shooting of whole packs from aircraft. This has led to a lot of adverse PR, particularly from star wildlife crusaders like Paul Watson and Miley Cyrus.
But the issue is a thorny one. Wolves are such iconic animals that any talk of killing or culling automatically becomes controversial, almost by definition. The problem is that wolves, although themselves technically an endangered species, are actually thriving and are decimating local populations of caribou, elk, moose and deer. Or rather, wolves, cougars, black bears and grizzly bears between them are decimating the ungulates (research in nearby Washington state suggests that cougars maybe the main culprit there, and that state has instituted a major cougar cull to address this). So, this is not wolf-culling to placate irate farmers, as might have been the case decades ago: this is about maintaining the fragile environmental balance in entire ecosystems.
In fact, the problem is more than thorny, it is almost completely intractible. For example, as soon as substantial culling takes place, wolves in particular tend to respond by increasing their birth rates, and/or new packs move into the area to exploit the power vacuum. Also, someone somewhere has to come up with a metric - little more than a line in the sand - for how many wolves/cougars/etc a particular area can support, and how many elk/caribou/deer/etc are appropriate to that region. It also requires an implicit assessment of the VALUE of a wolf as compared to an elk or a caribou, something that is even less distinct than a line in the sand.
I have to say that I have the greatest respect for the environmentalists  on the ground (and in the air) who have to make these kinds of thankless decisions and to implement them. It is all well and good for us, sitting in our armchairs in wolf-free Toronto, to bewail the deliberate killing of these beautiful animals. But, like most environmental issues, the reality is far from black and white.

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